Though the cover of the game, the logo, opening cinematic sequences and a good chunk of the narration features Final Fantasy XIII’s main protagonist, Lightning (as voiced by Hollywood actress Ali Hillis), you will only play as her little sister Serah and her companion Noel throughout 99 percent of the game. As a matter of fact, only Serah seems to know that Lightning isn’t dead. Where Final Fantasy XIII offered a wide variety of characters through branching storylines, nearly all of Final Fantasy XIII-2 follows the story of Serah as she attempts to repay and save her sibling along with some assistance from Noel, the last of humankind, trying to save the world from its bleak future.
Instead of branching storylines, in Final Fantasy XIII-2, Serah must travel through alternate timelines to resolve “Paradoxes” that doom the world at every turn. Ironically, the plot itself is a bit paradoxical. Where the original game, Final Fantasy XIII set up a new mythology with a tight narrative of classical themes, through the vast variety of characters, there was plenty of opportunity for humor but, the story of Final Fantasy XIII-2 offers a much more cerebral theme and seems unable to consistently bear the maturity of that load. Oftentimes, Serah’s lines seem too naïve or oblivious to be believable and other humorous content is accidental and comes off as incongruous.
While the new plot is a mixed bag, the gameplay in Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a return to its RPG roots and is reason enough to make those on fence jump in. And why yes, you can jump in Final Fantasy XIII-2. Along with a couple of other JRPG titles on the PlayStation 3, Final Fantasy XIII was widely panned as an interactive storybook due its severe linearity. Make no mistake, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is no open-world, sandbox type game like Skyrim or the latest of the Fallout series but, it does offer side quests and the ability to travel to unlocked areas at will. As a matter of fact, the game will force you to do some backtracking and if you desire, you can actually reset an area.
For the most part, Final Fantasy XIII-2 uses random enemy encounters with a slight twist. When a monster is encountered, a clock and a wide area circle appear. While the timer is green and if you are able to strike the monster, you will get a pre-emptive strike bonus and if you don’t wish to engage, you can try to outrun the area before the timer runs out, which can be difficult, particularly with flying monsters. Riding Chocobos will also allow players to avoid monsters and get to some areas not accessible on foot. In most cases though, you probably won’t want to try to avoid combat particularly, since you now have the chance of being able to add them to your battle party and some may even complain the difficulty is set too low. Poke-what?
Without getting too in depth into the combat system, like in the original Final Fantasy XIII-2, there are different “Paradigms” or battle roles players can set and the game also gives the ability of creating your own. Leveling up is based on the battle roles and will afford the characters abilities while performing that role in combat. The collected monsters have assigned roles and as such can be inserted into the “Paradigms” in those roles. The monsters, do not gain experience though, they are leveled up through found or purchased parts. You can also decorate them with various pieces of flair– to express yourself. Of course, there are all of the standard turn-based RPG customizations as well like, weapons, armaments, etc. New to this game though, is the ability to have weapons built for you for the right price and resources.
By opening up the play in Final Fantasy XIII-2, Square Enix inevitably had to sacrifice some of the narrative quality. This however doesn’t excuse the unevenness of the script in parts or the other missed opportunities in the storyline. Final Fantasy XIII-2 is better than the original Final Fantasy XIII and probably the mechanically best Final Fantasy yet. The plot and characters always seem to work in a shade of gray, as there are no absolutes or true evil to fight against. While that provides a chance to tell a more adult story, Final Fantasy XIII-2 doesn’t and even though, the main objective is to save your sister, Final Fantasy XIII-2 rarely requires much emotional investment.
Complaints about Final Fantasy XIII-2’s take on what could have been an amazing and surreal tale and lack of difficulty aside, the game is definitely worth buying. For less discerning gamers, the story is more than serviceable and, if nothing else, something new for the series. The easier combat does help speed up the pacing and makes the 30 plus hour title more accessible to newer fans. Don’t worry though, you can keep playing after it’s over. There are those that will miss the epic two hour battles filled with lengthy summons, but for most gamers, that’s hardly practical.
Playing Final Fantasy XIII prior to Final Fantasy XIII-2 isn’t necessary although a bonus is awarded to those that did. If you only have played this one, it’s hard to recommend going back and playing the original, after the fact. There is a primer to catch players up on the story, if needed. Final Fantasy games always have a level of audio/video polish other JRPGs can’t match and there is nothing else out there, save Mass Effect that gives as much and looks so good doing it. Looking forward, Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a great template to build from. With a little more time in the cooker, Square Enix will certainly get the recipe just right.
Final Fantasy XIII-2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Drug Reference, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling and Violence. This game can also be found on: Xbox 360.